Even if you haven’t already seen the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” (or really any episode of Black Mirror), or the Community episode, “App Development and Condiments,” or had a passing, idle conversation with a friend or relative about how folks really have their noses buried in their phones these days, it’s difficult to figure out why tonight’s episode of The Orville, “Majority Rule,” exists. So far this season, The Orville demonstrates that even if the follow-through is lacking, the show has a good grasp of a strong sci-fi premise: world ships, alien trials, space zoos –all that cool stuff. “Majority Rule” doesn’t even succeed there.
The episode strains with an awkward setup explaining the existence of an alien planet that just happens to be an analog to early 21st century earth in order to tell a story about the downside to social media. It’s a baffling decision unsalvaged by its bland execution. While it’s common for a sci-fi story to leverage the advanced sensibilities of a superior race to reference the problems of contemporary society, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better elsewhere, or helps contribute to The Orville’s identity as a space adventure show. What’s more the shame, this is the first episode focused on ship navigator John LaMarr (J. Lee), who so far has been given little to do other than hang in the background and echo Gordon’s dick jokes. Unfortunately, that extra attention doesn’t tell us much more about his character, other than he’s an impulsive wise-ass.
The Orville travels Sargus 4 in search of two Planetary Union anthropologists who have gone missing. Equipped with only the slightest knowledge of Sargus culture and photos of the missing scientists, Commander Grayson, Dr. Finn, Lieutenant Kitan and Lieutenant LaMarr fly a cloaked vessel to the surface to track them down. Other than the double-lapelled jackets and awkward, trapezoidal smart phones, the most readily apparent difference between our earth and Sargus 4 is every citizen wears a badge bearing a pair of upward and downward facing arrows. The pins display their bearer’s life total of upvotes and downvotes, and each arrow can be pressed to manually administer judgement.
The crew buys a set of badges from a corner newsman/black marketer without really understanding their significance. Immediately afterwards, John decides his first act on an unknown, possibly hostile alien world is to hop onto a public monument and grind against it. Even with its most irreverent characters, The Orville has never presented anyone as Homer Simpson levels of stupid, which is kind of how dumb you’d have to be to act like a big ‘ol jackass out in the open. Sure enough, a bunch of people record John rubbing his crotch against a statue of a beloved pioneer woman. While the crew keeps looking for leads on the lost scientists, coffee shop employee Lysella (Giorgia Whigham, introduced in the cold open) notices John’s downvotes rapidly accumulating. His stunt with the statue made it to the Master Feed (the Big Brother/stock market ticker on display in every room that tallies infractions) and now he’s facing the public’s wrath.
His actions earned enough downvotes that he’s taken into custody, where instead of a lawyer, he’s assigned a publicity consultant to help with his case. Standard procedure is the guilty party has to do a number of talk show appearances and beg forgiveness. If their remorse seems sincere or heartfelt enough, they can claw back from the pit of downvotes. If the public decides the offender isn’t sufficiently penitent, the downvotes accumulate to a terminal number and the person is given a corrective lobotomy. John makes a number of appearances, but screws up each one. While some of it can be attributed his unfamiliarity with what’s expected of him, mostly it comes across as him not trying at all.
This exemplifies my major frustration with this episode. The Orvillle doesn’t offer any new insight to the evils of unchecked populism and social media, when it could have used those themes to explore the problems of navigating culture and morality on alien worlds with little or no information. During his second talk show appearance, John slaps the audience member’s knees in a failed attempt to present a jocular, fun-loving persona, only to be accused of violently striking them by the show’s host. Was the host openly trying to adversely affect John’s votes, or is physical contact rare on Sargus 4? The scene that best utilized this idea was when Alara was confronted for wearing a hat that she had no cultural right to. She didn’t know a thing about it, and had only chosen it to hide her forehead ridges. Her accuser threatens to downvote her and create a scene.
The missing anthropologists’ transgression is eventually revealed that they failed to give up their seat to the pregnant woman on the bus. Not out of malice, but because they were immersed in their work. Which is rude, sure. But it’s rude here, too. What if they offered her a seat based off of human social mores, not knowing that pregnant women on Sargus 4 must stand? Having the Union fall victim to the difficulty of maneuvering the incredibly nuanced expectations of any given culture would provide a thematic unity to the episode that’s otherwise lacking.
That said, I did enjoy the show’s resolution. John is strapped in the lobotomy chair awaiting the final vote tally, and it’s up to the Orville in orbit to save him. Isaac successfully hacked into the Master Feed, but he couldn’t simply change the number of downvotes. Instead, they relied on Lysella –now aboard the ship- to help seed the comments with content about John that would improve his favorability. It was an instinctual and emotional process. What do people like? That he gives money to his grandma and he was fat as a kid. This process culminates in Isaac constructing a video of John as a vet seeing his dog for the first time since returning from war. Lysella is savvy and understands what will grab people’s attention. It was an engaging and clever use for her character.
Ultimately, this episode felt labored and awkward. The Orville is a deliberate throwback to a type of science fiction brimming with sincerity and optimism, but it just doesn’t have the teeth to pull off a proper cautionary anthology series vibe like this.
- “Part of his job is to maintain a low profile when studying primitive cultures.” The admiral refuses to give Ed permission to fly down to the planet to rescue John. And he’s right. Dude dry-humped a statue, now he’s gotta see it through.
- “She saved the whale forests?” John’s failed attempt to guess who the woman depicted by the statue he danced on was honoring.
- In keeping track of our Next Gen analogs, the Union doesn’t have a prime directive if Ed is willing to reveal the existence of aliens by staging a rescue mission. But they have moved beyond capitalism as demonstrated by everyone’s confusion concerning money.
- What culture designs a pyramid-shaped alarm clock? We see Lysella stab her hand down one to shut it off, and it’s hard to imagine that making it past r&d, regardless of what planet you live on.
- I do like how the cold open used sunlight, brick and wood in contrast to the sleek, cold lines of the ship to immediately establish the story is taking place somewhere very different.
- There’s enough world-building and near-futurism in Black Mirror to help sell the show’s techno-dystopia. It’s tough to believe all of Sargus 4 operates on a mostly functional system of voluntary self-governance enabled by technology that’s only been ubiquitous here for about a decade.
- “I will not fail you.” Bortus in response to Ed’s suggestion that the meeting room should have pretzels and water on hand for guests. His life-debt seriousness over a trifling suggestion is adorable.